Ethiopian Eunuch

There are way too many novels that are longer than they need to be. It becomes fairly easy to see when an author was told to add a few more pages to the novel, or a director felt the need to add a few more minutes to the movie. Those are the parts where the story drags, where details are given that have no bearing on the plot at all.

Ancient story tellers did not have this problem with the printed or written word, perhaps when they were telling it orally, the story was given unnecessary details as the story teller held the audience captive.

This means for us that any and every word is important when reading scriptures. In our story about the Ethiopian eunuch this is certainly the case.

It is clear that eunuch is not used in the sense that it means simply a court official as some commentators want to say. If that were the case, the author would not need to also state that he was the treasurer for Queen Candace.

The story could have been told without telling us exactly what part of Isaiah was being read. But we are told what the Ethiopian was reading, so it is important.

The baptism is given extra coverage. Why? How does it fit into the general story?

Acts is written my Luke, a Greek, in the common Greek language of the day. He could be using the Greek word eunuch to translate the Hebrew word saris which is usually the case in our sacred scriptures. However, since we don’t know that for sure, we will stick to just the meanings of the Greek word eunuch. At the very core of the word, it means he had been gentled – whether by force or whether he was born that way we don’t know. Jesus talks about either one being possible when he talks about eunuchs. It is enough to know that this person did not fit the normal sexual standards of his society.

He was obviously one who was seeking spiritual peace. He had been to Jerusalem, the center of Judaism. If he had gone to worship at the Temple and find solace, he did not. He would have been rejected. Those who did not fit normal were not allowed in the temple. He had gone all that way, only to be denied any spiritual relief by the very people he hoped would help him.

What he was able to do was to buy a copy of some of the Jewish scriptures, in particular, the book of Isaiah. When Philip comes up to him he is reading about someone who has been rejected. Who is being rejected?, the Ethiopian wonders. Is there someone else who, like me, has felt the sting of rejection by society and by faith communities?

Philip asks him if he knows what the scripture is saying. Perhaps because Philip was a Greek (or raised among the Greeks – he bore the name of the father of Alexander the Great) Philip knew that what the Greeks might accept the Jews would not when it came to different sexualities. He knew the hurt the eunuch had endured when he was not allowed to even enter the outer Temple gates.

When Philip explains the teaching of Jesus and how the words from Isaiah were interpreted by Jesus in his actions and preaching, the eunuch begins to sense that maybe, just maybe, he also would be welcomed by Jesus, by God and by this new faith community who were known as Followers of the Way. (Christians were not called Christians yet at this point in the early church.)

Seeing some water – The River of Egypt is actually just a wadi – a dry river bed except when there has been rain – the eunuch asked if there was anything to prevent him from being baptized. This was not a clear mountain stream, nor was it a great river like the Nile or the Jordan. The eunuch did not care. The way he asked it, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” was revealing the hurtful history of rejection and exclusion. Always there had been something that labeled him as an outcast, but not anymore. Now he could be included in the beloved community. There was no more hiding his nature, and so no more fearing discovery. There was no more shaming looks or barring of entry into segments of society. There was no more wondering why God was angry with him. He was loved, he was included in the community and the baptism was the proof of it.

He went on his way rejoicing.

One does not need to fit any definition of a eunuch to feel the deep pain of being rejected. I don’t know if there is any way to indicate what kind of rejection hurts the most, but some of the places where one depends on being accepted would include home and church. When even these places reject people who don’t fit normal the pain can go very deep.

In today’s society the need for community is not being met well. Social media allow people to connect with those who are like minded. It still remains to be seen what the ramifications are for that. One of them has become apparent as we tend to listen to and talk with only those who are already in agreement with us. We divide into interest groups that are not subdivisions of anything larger. The sense of the larger society has been eroded. The personal growth that comes from interacting with people who are different in culture, personality, opinion, etc., is not available.

At the same time we may be seeing the end of the big box stores and churches. Is it because people are drawn to places where “everybody knows your name”? Or is it because we have found that we don’t need to go out in public at all if we can get Amazon.com to deliver what we need to us?

Three years ago I wrote an article about the future of the church. I don’t know if the mega-church or the house church will be the wave of the future. I don’t know if the teachings of the church will become more exclusive or inclusive. I do know that the church will continue to exist as long as it provides a place where people can be in community.

One of the challenges for Pioneer is deepening the sense of community. My prayer is that those first few minutes of every worship service here are not wasted. You may come because of the beauty of the worship space, the brilliance of the preaching or the inspiration of the music, but if you do not feel that you are included in a community where you will find support, growth and strength, then you may be feeling just as much an outcast as the Ethiopian eunuch felt as he left Jerusalem.

Baptism was and still is the sacrament that assured people that they were part of the community of faith. Today we will also celebrate communion, another sacrament that reminds us that we are together as one. Let it be real. Let that oneness go beyond the few minutes we spend together here.

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